Well designed games shine whether you are playing them or just watching. The consistency of theme, presentation, and mechanics that make playing a good game such a joy translates — in the best games — into an eloquent dance that you can appreciate as an observer. If you’re really familiar with the game, you can pick up patterns, see the swings, watch the crescendos and decrescendos, almost like listening to a symphony. A good design realizes that every piece of the game needs to fit together, like strings and brass and woodwinds, but each piece needs to bring something different, like strings and brass and woodwinds. It’s hard to design something that fits its pieces together so distinctly and neatly, which is why so many games just add as many pieces as they can, hoping some of them work together. Dice and cards and plastic pieces and a tableau and victory points here and there and oh look! — a mancala. Good luck getting the conductor to harmonize that.
Compared to the 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s, game designers today must feel like they have an incredible armamentarium for expressing theme. Whether it’s through worker placement, card mechanics, resource management, auctions, tableau-building, or even a mancala, there are now so many ways to make little meeples or whatnot go on cardboard adventures that it’s almost like having a whole new ludographic vocabulary. And designers are taking advantage of it, with tremendous new games being released it seems every month.
Then there’s Freedom: The Underground Railroad. Continue reading →
The last twenty years of boardgame design have taught us that there is a lot more to do with dice and cardboard than rolling to see whether or not you end up on Park Place. But to some extent this progress has enforced a sort of orthodoxy: games have to have brisk pacing, constant interactivity, and victory conditions that give first-time players a decent chance of winning, or they get quickly relegated to the shelf in favor of the latest hotness (unless they have cool miniatures, in which case apparently all faults are forgiven).
So what if a game gave you none of these, and on top of it, had a somber theme that would probably put off half the people to glance at the box? How about if it also condemned you a lot of solitary mucking about without a clear way to achieve your objective, only to have a chance to win come and go so fast you didn’t even get to plan for it, after which you settled into the despair of knowing your best chance to win has come and gone, and thought about all the ways that you could have seized that opportunity? Or instead, you planned carefully and cleverly for an opportunity that never happened? Welcome to Black Orchestra, a fantastic game that breaks many of the rules of Euro game design that we’ve swallowed without question for twenty years.
Quite literally, welcome to the resistance. Continue reading →
(This is the second entry in a weekly (or so) game diary about the boardgame Vietnam 1965-1975. The series starts here.)
A few years ago, I wrote a game diary on this site that turned into an ongoing series that eventually became one of my favorite things I had written. The reason was that as I wrote, I found myself following the gameplay to my bookshelf, chasing the assumptions behind the mouseclicks, and turning my thoughts inside out to look at exactly how and why I was enjoying the game, the subject matter, and the very hobby I was embracing. It was completely unplanned, but also unstoppable.
One of the things that made this such a special project was the subject. Continue reading →
I was having dinner with some people a few years ago when a friend of mine, who is actually a well-known role-playing game designer, started making fun of euro games. “It’s just a bunch of abstract concepts wrapped up in gameplay mechanics,” he said, “except that the red cube represents Catholicism.” I bristled at that, because sure you can make a lot of very historical mechanics about Catholicism when you’re playing a role-playing game about being the pope, but how are you going to get enough people to represent all of Europe? Answer me that, smart guy. I went away thinking I was pretty smart, myself.
Turns out he was right. And not just about the Reformation. Continue reading →
There’s an old saw about how when you get exactly what you want it might not end up being what you expected. If that ever happens to you, let me know if it’s true. Until then, I’m going to go with the digital release of Twilight Struggle as being the closest thing we’ve got.
I’ve been saying for a while that board wargames have long since outstripped their computer counterparts in design, aesthetics, innovation, and any other positive adjective you can think of, depending on whether or not you ascribe a positive connotation to the word, “detail.” Boardgame ports, on the other hand, have a history of leaving something— sometimes many things — to be desired. So when a company releases what many people consider the best wargame ever designed, and the PC port actually comes out almost perfect, and it’s about the Cold War of all things, there shouldn’t be much to say, except for “Praise Reagan!” Right? Right??
After the jump, haters gotta hate Continue reading →
Everybody gets old — the question is, how do you realize it? I realized I was old when I stopped being surprised by things that would have shocked me in my twenties. Russia ruled by a madman? No longer shocking. US soon to be ruled by a madman? No longer shocking. Game touted as Computer Squad Leader ends up being disappointing? Well…
After the jump, okay, I can still be surprised by some things. Continue reading →
So I went ahead and tried Passengers, which you can do as well. Sadly, it’s another example of the games industry’s continued immaturity, but in this case it’s a specific window into the jejune understanding of art and life by the people who make games. Sorry, did I say that? I have no idea what they think about art and life, or if they even see this as art, or just activism, or if art can be activism as well as art, which I think it can, but anyway. I wish Ian Buruma could write an article for the New York Review of Books about this.
But, after the jump, you are stuck with me. Continue reading →
When someone says “Civilization” to a bunch of gamers, chances are that you’ll soon hear about a guy named Sid Meier, and phalanxes versus battleships, and the space race, and how the Mongols are so annoying. And certainly how many hundreds of games you all played, and how epic they were.
Mention it to gamers who started playing ten years earlier, and you’ll likely hear about a game from Avalon Hill by some guy named Francis Tresham, and calamities, and trade cards, and how the Cretans were so annoying. And how hard it was to find enough people willing to sit down and play a game that was pretty much guaranteed to last 12 hours. And there was no way anyone had played it hundreds of times. But it sure felt like it.
After the jump, a new kind of old civilization. Continue reading →
This isn’t a game review. There is nothing objective about anything you’re about to read. Not that making this a review would somehow mean it would have to be an objective enumeration of the game’s features and technical specs, although you and I both know that there are plenty of websites doing exactly that, as though they were describing accounting software. But there is a big difference between a guy getting an advance copy of a game from a publisher and playing a few times over one day before rendering an opinion, and a guy spending a year playing a game, first in boardgame format and then on the iPad, over a dozen major rules changes and a hundred separate builds, and then trying to tell you what he thinks. Each one needs to be taken with an industrial dose of whichever variation of the sodium chloride idiom is currently in vogue in your vernacular of English.
After the jump, it’s up to you to decide which you find more helpful. Continue reading →
When Shenandoah Studio’s Drive on Moscow came out last November, the AI was, shall we say, primitive. People playing their first game reported wiping out every enemy unit on the map. The previous release, Battle of the Bulge, had left a lasting impression of a revolutionary and flawlessly implemented interface with a game system that fit it perfectly. Drive on Moscow, despite its many merits, had a bit of a sour aftertaste.
After the jump, time for a palate cleanser. Continue reading →
Games, especially wargames, tend to get superficial or even dismissive treatment in the mainstream press. So it’s refreshing to see an informed and thoughtful piece explore the outstanding design work of Volko Ruhnke, a CIA security analyst who happens to be the designer of a series of multiplayer counterinsurgency games, including videogame reviewer Tom Chick’s favorite Labyrinth and ex-Colombian general Carlos Ospina Ovale’s favorite Andean Abyss. The Washington Post’s Jason Albert is the best kind of mole, establishing his credentials as an insider only after the article hooks you.
Beginning as a 10-year-old more than three decades ago, I spent innumerable hours hunched over wargames playing commander. My parents didn’t understand. My friends who saw the sun regularly didn’t either. But I wasn’t alone. Even though I left wargaming behind, I never forgot the games’ ability to evoke a sense of time, place and history.
He then describes playing Ruhnke’s games with him at his home, his experiences at the World Boardgame Championships, and how games like this can be a passion for both designer and player.
The cultural origins of Russia aren’t something you’d expect to be addressed in a fantasy strategy game. The fact that you can find a synthesis of mythology and anthropology derived from a long-running historical controversy in the nation backgrounds for Dominions 4 demonstrates just how far from elves and orcs an erudite game designer can travel in creating a compelling, fascinating milieu. And still populate it with fireballs and broadswords.
After the jump, a study in red. Continue reading →
Game design seems easy when you just imagine it as a series of mechanics with names on them. Shenandoah Studio did so many things right (and almost nothing wrong) with their brilliant Battle of the Bulge iOS game that it might seem trivial to call the Allies the Soviets, draw up a new map, and send the panzers on their way to Moscow. In the world of wargame design, it’s not that easy. The switch from division level to corps/army level, from a two-week campaign to one that lasted two months, and from a battlefield that covered 150 kilometers to one that spanned over 600 kilometers in a single direction, all have the potential to wreak havoc with pacing, balance, and historical accuracy. So while gamers may see it as a quick and easy way to extend a game series, it is in no way a slam dunk.
After the jump, basketball metaphors on the Eastern Front. Continue reading →
Almost exactly ten years ago, I happened to find an amazing demo on the Internet. It was for what looked like a fantasy strategy game. It was crude, even by the standards of 2003. It was completely inscrutable. You clicked on things and seemingly nothing happened. It had a lot of lore in it, but it didn’t explain many of the mechanics. It was almost like the lore was supposed to give you clues as to how the game worked. Except for selecting units and giving orders. You were on your own for those things. It was akin to being immersed in a foreign language by traveling to that country, but without knowing the first thing you needed to do was learn how to find the restroom.
After the jump, finding the restroom in Dominions. Continue reading →